Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2005 / 22 Elul,
Notes in transit
I timed it. It took me only 50 minutes to pack my bags for this year's editorial writers convention. Unfortunately, it takes me two days to put off packing till the last minute.
What takes time is picking out all the books and papers to stuff into my tote bag/laptop case. Which may explain why I always say too much at these confabs. But I make up for it by dressing poorly.
It's all a matter of your priorities. I think I'd rather eat a slug (broiled with a little butter, maybe) than pack. At least it wouldn't take as long.
I have the same thought on locking the door behind me every time I leave town: Now that I've finally got everything squared away at home it would be too depressing to come back to a messy house it's a shame to leave.
The thing about tomatoes and bananas is that you're either (a) fresh out of both when you've craving a great big Third World salad (my specialty, since it involves no cooking), or (b) have entirely too many of both just when you're leaving town, and leaving all that fruit to spoil. Happily, that's what G-d made neighbors for.
It's the cheery tone in which airline attendants announce that your flight has been delayed that annoys more than the delay. It's a bit like watching a perky television announcer read a news bulletin about some disastrous fire or flood with a cheerful smile.
I meet a North Carolina boy who's now writing editorials for the Omaha World Herald, and pretty good ones at that. He tells me he's at work on a book connecting the Western ethos and the Southern one. It's about time somebody picked up on that seminal theory, one of many in Walter Prescott Webb's classic study, "The Great Plains." It took a savvy genius like Lincoln and a morally and juridicially depraved chief justice like Roger B. Taney, he of the Dred Scott decision and crime, to unite North and West against a South misled by her own deep passions and mad agitators.
My new friend explains that there are really three Nebraskas: the urban strip down the eastern side of the state, the corn-and-soybean belt in the middle, and the ranchers on the western side. To city folk, the ranchers and farmers may be indistinguishable, but each have their own interests, outlook and culture. In Nebraska, longitude determines attitude. The state really isn't just one big cornfield or 500-mile-long Main Street.
All of which confirms my theory that (a) anybody who studied under John Shelton Reed at Chapel Hill stays a student of sociology for life, and (b) Southern editorial writers are really frustrated sociologists.
There ought to be a field of study called social geography, which would combine sociology with the Southern sense of place.
The lady editorial writer at dinner this evening has a charming way; her eyes are intelligent, her smile quick, her manner vivacious. Then she begins explaining why refugees from Katrina's fury shouldn't be called refugees because it's an insult. Even if it isn't. Because any term perceived as an insult by anybody is one, and may no longer be used.
Hers is the Humpty Dumpty theory of linguistics put plain. Lewis Carroll would understand: Words mean whatever we arbitrarily decide they do at any given time. They have no independent existence, no development of their own shaped by time and usage, but can be forbidden by political or social necessity. Which is how English, aka oldspeak in Orwell's "1984," is reduced to Newspeak.
It occurs to me during our increasingly frosty conversation that the lady is a genuine menace to the integrity of the language. Her eyes are still intelligent but a little hard-edged now, her smile still quick but in a mechanical way. Her charm has evaporated, replaced by a brittle insistence.
She is no longer a writer but a wordsmith, no longer thinker but censor. The language is just a mass of malleable verbiage to be twisted and bent on the iron forge of her ideology. What she believes, and would insist others believe, has taken control of the person she was. Ideas, especially bad ones, will do that.
It was Chesterton who said Times Square would be a beautiful sight if only one couldn't read.
For a traveler returning from the Golden West, Arkansas begins at the Little Rock gate of DFW. That's where the familiar faces reappear. Returning from the Arkansas Razorbacks' 70-17 disaster at the hands of USC in California, one of the state's surviving fans sums up the whole experience:
It was a great game till it started.
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